Sunday, 15 December 2013


Our wonderful author, Stuart Miller-Osborne has struck Gold again with this article on the Festival of Britain.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“ Flow proudly Thames! The emblem bright and witness of succeeding years ! “
Thomas Love Peacock  

When browsing through a bookshop recently I came across a News Chronicle brochure for the Festival of Britain which was held in 1951. I purchased the souvenir and read it on my journey home that evening. It was like looking through the looking glass into another world. I can remember my parents talking of the event as a child and have vague memories of various souvenirs of the Festival of Britain being dotted around the house, It was however an event which in some ways has faded from the collective memory. 

I feel that 2012 this year has all the makings of a memorable year. We have had a balmy March followed by the wettest April on record. It is the Queens Jubilee Year with all the associated street parties (Including one here in Hungerford). Beacons are to be lit (I think the nearest to Hungerford will be on Inkpen Downs but I may be wrong). The Queen is meeting her people. All we need is for the sun to shine. 

On the sporting front we have the test series against the West Indian tourists. The national football side is going to complete in the European Championships and to top it all off the Olympic Games are due to commence during the latter part of the summer. For many reasons 2012 may well be regarded by many and for different reasons as a year to remember.

After the austerity of the years following the war the early fifties for varying reasons (both good and bad) were memorable. We lost the King in 1952 and the current Queen was crowned the following year with a great deal of celebration. Although I was not born during this period my conversations with people who were old enough to remember the Festival of Britain has led me to believe that the two years that followed the festival somewhat eclipsed the event.

The actual idea for the festival was conceived during the dark days of the war in 1943 within the Royal Society of Arts. The intention was to celebrate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. When peace returned in 1945 the idea took hold. Due to restrictions, the original idea of an international exhibition was downsized to that our own island. Gerald Barry (1898-1968) the Festival Director described it as “ a tonic to the nation” 

In the century that followed the 1851 exhibition much had changed in Britain. We were no longer the power we were in 1851. Our Empire was crumbling and the country had been brought to its knees by two costly world wars. The idea was to showcase what was good in Britain. We may have been bruised and battered but were now off of the ropes. Britain wanted to show the world its contributions to the sciences, industrial design, the arts and the new architecture to name but a few.

Most of us are aware that the centrepiece of the festival was on the South Bank of the Thames. But the festival was spread out. The architecture area was in Polar in East London. The Festival Pleasure Gardens were located in Battersea and the science exhibition was located in South Kensington. Further a field there were exhibitions in Cardiff, Glasgow, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bournemouth, Bath, Oxford and Inverness as well as many other locations.

The centrepiece of the festival on the South Bank at Waterloo was the unfortunate Skylon which most people remember. It was a cigar shaped aluminium steel tower some three hundred feet high. It appeared on most of the promotional literature of the time as well as stamps and many souvenirs (including my recently purchased brochure). My mother who visited the exhibition at the time noted that the exhibit was lit from within at night and remembers seeing it for the last time as she crossed Hungerford Bridge on her way home from the festival with my father.

As with the later demolition of the Euston Arch on the say of the Conservative Government it was incoming Conservative administration of Winston Churchill ( Who saw the festival as associated with the post war Labour Government of Clement Attlee) that laid waste to most of the site. After the event was over the exhibition was demolished with haste including the spectacular Skylon. It was toppled into the Thames and sold for scrap and as with the Euston Arch has been the subject of much interest in the last few years. Indeed I believe there are plans to rebuild the Euston Arch as the location of many of its remains have been identified. However the Skylon is lost to us for ever and is only stationed in the memories of those who saw it and in the photographs and films of the time. 

Happily one building that did survive was The Royal Festival Hall which today looks very much as it did in 1951. The International Modernist style was in evidence in the area with many elevated walkways and buildings on different levels. I was for many years a member of the National Film Theatre and it never ceased to amaze me how this area could be seen as being futuristic as well as being historical in one go. A majority of the area still exists reasonably unchanged and is worth a visit.

The Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park was to some extent another survivor later becoming the Battersea Fun Fair and only closed in the mid 1970s. I can still remember visiting it during my childhood. As with many exhibitions if one looks hard enough one can see remnants of these events tucked away. As with railway stations many notable examples still remain for a variety of reasons such as local pressure, other uses, general apathy or they were just missed.

Over the years I have seen many souvenirs of the exhibition although in the last five years I have not found so many. If you look hard enough you should be able to find the mass produced memorabilia of the time. I do not really collect these items although on occasions I might purchase one out of interest and to consider the social history of the time. One does not have to be very old to appreciate the massive changes that have taken place in the last sixty one years. I wonder what my parents generation would have made of the internet and mobile phones in 1951.

At the end of March this year I took tea with my mother in the ancient village of Lacock.I had the festival brochure in my bag. We hardly spoke over tea as my mother looked at the souvenir. She agreed that the festival was indeed another country. The thin volume she read brought back many memories including the extreme overcrowding in the Dome of Discovery (which sadly shared the same fate as the Skylon) and her fascination with a ruby dressing table set which she had not thought about for over fifty years. Another memory was the statue by Daphne Hardy (1917-2003) which she greatly admired at the time.

She did at times mention the festival during my childhood (especially when I accidentally broke the more fragile souvenirs). But over tea during that unseasonably warm afternoon she confessed that really she had not thought of the festival for over a generation and the black and white photographs had brought back many happy memories.

I think a quote in the brochure really sums up the festival as certain writings will sum up the year of 2012.

“ From the flashing beam on the South Bank’s venerable Shot Tower to floodlit Big Ben, Festival Thames-side glows brilliantly under the night sky. Across the river from the soaring Skylon is Cleopatra’s Needle, which stood beside the Nile when Britons were paddling their coracles past the swamp that is now the South Bank.”  
It was indeed a celebration of what it is to be British and every now and then we should be allowed to pat ourselves on the back and consider the history of this small island of ours. I look forward to the exhibition of 2051 and maybe I will write of its wonders as numerous writers have done in their coverage of the two previous exhibitions.

Stuart Miller-Osborne

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